• Jay Christian

Kobe Bryant: A Star Wars Story

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….

Like so many fans around the world, I have been wrapped up in Star Wars mania over the holiday season. The latest installation to the franchise, The Last Jedi, is breaking box office records and has received widespread acclaim. Around the same time as the Last Jedi’s release, NBA fans also witnessed the jersey retirement ceremony of one Kobe Bean Bryant earlier this month. Bryant had the distinction of having both his #8 and #24 jerseys retired in front of a Staples Center crowd packed with former teammates and adoring fans.

In this midst of all the Kobe and Star Wars fanfare, I had a thought. Kobe’s career arc plays out like Episodes I-VI of the Star Wars Saga. This assumes of course that Kobe is Anakin Skywalker rather than Luke, and to be honest, I’m sure Kobe would prefer it that way. I don’t consider Episodes VII and VIII because the Anakin/Darth Vader story arc essentially ends with Return of the Jedi.

But given the conflicts Kylo Ren experiences in The Force Awakens in trying to live up to his grandfather's legacy, there is room for an Episode VII addendum drawing on the parallels between Ren and the generation of NBA players who grew up idolizing Kobe (DeMar DeRozan, Paul George, Kyrie Irving, etc. This will all make sense in the story). But hey, it’s Christmas not a critical film study class. Just enjoy the read and Happy Holidays!

Episode I – The Phantom Menace (June 26, 1996).

Kobe Bryant becomes the first guard to be drafted straight out of high school, selected 13th overall by the Charlotte Hornets and immediately traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. Although Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls are in the midst of another three-peat, the Golden Era of the NBA is winding down and the league needs new stars. If the prophecies are true, Bryant will restore balance to the Force.

Episode II – Attack of the Clones (June 19, 2000).

Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal run roughshod over the NBA, winning their first of three championships together from 2000 to 2002, including an astonishing 17-1 play-off record during their 2001 title run. From the outside, all appears right in the basketball universe. The Lakers are back on top. Fans are treated to the closest thing to MJ since his retirement in 1998. But internally, Bryant yearns for more. He senses that he should be all powerful.

Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (July 17, 2004).

After an embarrassing showing in the 2004 NBA Finals against the Detroit Pistons, the Lakers are in turmoil. Bryant can no longer exist in the chaos with O’Neal. He is a free agent, so belated owner Dr. Jerry Buss must decide who will lead his team: Shaq or Kobe. Buss trades O’Neal to the Miami Heat in exchange for Brian Grant, Lamar Odom, Caron Butler and a draft pick. L.A. is Bryant’s city now and he will go on to individual success over the next few years, reshaping the Lakers in his image. The Scowl. 81 points in a game. Mamba Mentality. He has embraced the Dark Side.

Episode IV – A New Hope (June 20, 2006 – June 14, 2007).

While Bryant’s Lakers struggle to find success, a crop of fresh talent begins to make its mark on the league. The vaunted Class of ’03 is starting to solidify itself as one of the best draft classes in NBA history. Headlined by LeBron James, this next generation of stars are winning games and making nightly appearances on SportsCenter. Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade turns in a legendary 2006 Finals performance on his way to a title and Finals MVP. James follows suit and leads his Cavaliers to the Finals the next season against the San Antonio Spurs, and although the Cavs come up short, the future is here. A new era of basketball has begun.

Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (June 14, 2009).

Bryant responds with a vengeance that would make Emperor Palpatine blush. In 2009, he captures his first regular season MVP award as he leads the Lakers to the Finals, defeating the Orlando Magic for his fourth championship. The Lakers repeat as champions the following season by ousting the Boston Celtics in an epic series. Bryant secures his fifth ring to go along with two Finals MVP awards.

Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (April 13, 2016).

The years in between the 2010 title and Bryant’s retirement were filled with roster turnover, losses and injuries. So many injuries. Bryant, now surrounded by young, unproved teammates seems increasingly frustrated and ornery. The megawatt smiles he once flashed in postgame press conferences were replaced with more four-letter words. It seems too late for Mamba. He is lost to the Dark Side.

But something magical happens on the final night of the 2015-2016 NBA season, which would be Bryant’s last. Facing off against the visiting Utah Jazz, he scores a season-high 60 points in a Lakers’ 101–96 victory, and in doing so, becomes the oldest player to score 60 or more points in a game. Fans cheers. The bench goes nuts. Bryant smiles.

Bryant ended a masterful 20-year career that night. It was a career that was filled with accomplishments and a bridge between the Jordan years and the NBA that we enjoy today. He inspired a generation of players and left his mark on the game. In his postgame speech, Bryant thanked his teammates, coaches and the Staples Center faithful who supported him over his career and signed off with his now famous, “Mamba out.”

That night, the Jedi returned.

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